Members: Felix Gebhard, Chris Breuer, Nic Stockmann
Interviewee: Felix Gebhard
Occupation: Guitar player (Felix Gebhard), Bassist (Chris Breuer), Drummer (Nic Stockmann)
Current release: ZAHN's debut album Tseudo is out via Crazysane.
Recommendations: Joe Henderson featuring Alice Coltrane – The Elements; Jack Kerouac – The Dharma Bums
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When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Earliest musical passions were records that I got to know through my parents, The Beatles in particular. Their songs spoke to me, even though I initially didn’t understand the lyrics. I spent a long time discovering their full catalog, at first through the red and blue compilations, and later by digging up all the original albums.
I started writing my own music much, much later, when I was around 17 years old.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
In the first band I was in, a group called Shitlist, we initially had this theory that all songs had already been written, so why bother writing new ones. We devoted ourselves to exclusively playing other bands’ material, which in this case was early 80’s punk and hardcore, 7 Seconds and Minor Threat specifically. Eventually we started writing our own music, though.
I guess everything feeds into everything and even if someone is creating something supposedly “original” and “new”, most times there’ll be traces of something that came before in it.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Even though I make a lot of music, I don’t necessarily see myself as a musician, as that has never been my sole income. In a way I feel that not having to make a living through ones art actually gives one more freedom doing it, but I might be fooling myself there.
I have these windows of free time that I can devote to a certain project and then have to finish the project in that time, from developing it to the actual finished medium. I’ve discovered that this way of working makes it easier to get stuff done. Before, I tended to end up in these self-critical loops of not knowing when something was finished and in some cases shelved things because I thought they weren’t good enough.
In Zahn we are pretty quick finishing things, too, which I like a lot.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Writing and playing music and keeping it interesting for myself is a constant challenge.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Aside from temporarily sharing a proper recording studio a few years ago I’ve always only had makeshift ones, either at home or at various practice places. I started with different multi-track cassette recorders and switched over to digital relatively late.
I eventually accepted that I’ll always be dependent on other people when it comes to recording bigger projects or mixing, so I stopped lusting after luxurious outboard gear. I keep my own set-up simple.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Being able to make music on a laptop computer changed everything.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Any exchange, be it playing music with other people or just talking about it, leads to new ideas. As much as I like working on solo stuff, I’m always seeking collaborative projects to learn more and widen my own limited horizon.
The fact that Nic, Chris and I found each other and formed Zahn is making me extremely happy in this regard.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I do not have a fixed schedule. I don’t always have time to do creative work, since that is only sometimes putting the bread on my table. When I do have the time I like to get an early start and jump in right away after a light breakfast. If I don’t start early chances are that I won’t get anything done that day.
I do listen to a lot of music all the time, but not so much during periods of working on my own.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I’m still waiting for that breakthrough moment.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The greatest challenge while creating on a computer, be it writing, recording or anything else, is the amount of distractions that come with that device. My strategy is to not open a browser or mail program until I got a few hours of work under the belt. I also keep my phone in a different room.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
A lot of current popular music hurts me. But obviously music can help in many situations. I wouldn’t go so far as to calling music a tool for healing but certain songs have a way of picking me up when I’m down, definitely.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Growing up in Germany, where a lot of popular culture from North America and England has been absorbed and aped since the emergence of rock’n’roll and before that, this way of copying never seemed strange to me when I was younger. After writing and playing song-based music for a long time, though, I found great joy in making experimental instrumental music as it gave me the chance to consciously break away from certain well-worn stereotypical paths.
Using other peoples’ cultural or even religious symbols or rituals to transport a certain feel or look of, for example, a piece of music, which I assume your question hints at, is out of the question for me. That said, playing an electric guitar riff through a distortion box and a tube amplifier – which, I guess, might be regarded as a form of appropriation as well: well, I’m okay with that.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
While smelling and tasting is probably the only real sensual overlap I can think of right now, I like the way seeing and hearing work together when watching a movie accompanied by music and vice versa, and how each element, the visual and the audible, can amplify the other.
Then, of course, standing in front of a PA system, hearing and watching a great band play and feeling the bass in your chest can be a pretty blissful and inspiring cocktail of senses.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Regarding Zahn’s work or any of my own I wouldn’t say that it’s overly political, but I admire people who have the ability to address political and social issues through their art.
When creating I find myself looking for an aesthetic angle more often than trying to load whatever I’m doing with hidden messages.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music can obliterate the need for words and ideally make people shut up for a moment or two.